The purpose of this illustrated lecture is to provide context for the student who strives to understand what kind of place Periclean Athens was. Dr. J’s Illustrated Pericles and America lecture explains how fifth century Greek values compare to our modern American ones, and Dr. J’s Illustrated Pericles and Philadelphia compares Periclean Athens to a great American city I lived in for a time.
In his introduction to Pericles’ Funeral Oration, the historian Thucydides explains the time-honored practice of providing public funerals to Athenian soldiers killed in battle: “The dead are laid in the public sepulchre, maintained for those who fall in war, in the most beautiful suburb of the city…” This “suburb” is the Keramikos, just north of the Agora, and the site of state heroes’ tombs from the fifth century onward. Pausanias tells us that he even saw Pericles’ own tomb there when he passed through in about 200 AD. We give our statesmen equally honorable treatment upon their deaths.
Before relating the speech that Pericles gives to honor those Athenian soldiers who fell during the first year of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides reminds us that a similar state-funded ceremonial burial is afforded all Athenian war dead with the exception of those who a generation earlier died at the4 Battle of Marathon: “…who for their singular and extraordinary valor were interred where they fell.” Marathon is probably the most important battle in Greek History; it is certainly the most celebrated. 192 Athenian soldiers died fighting the Persians at Marathon, including the brother of the playwright Aeschylus. They are buried in a grave mound called the “soros” (upper left). A modern reconstruction of the ancient memorial listing the names of the dead by tribe is on display as well (right). Our own Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. uses a similar method of recognizing the very special sacrifice made by each and every American soldier who died in the defense of freedom in South Vietnam (but go to Pericles and America for more on that).
Pericles praises Athens for her form of government – democracy – because it is only in a democracy that citizens are encouraged to contribute and participate in self-rule. Democracy brings equality, merit brings public success, social and economic mobility is encouraged, the law protects all: “We alone consider the man who refuses to take part in city affairs useless,” Pericles announces. And he gets in a jab at Sparta by proudly proclaiming that “rather than look upon discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it is an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.”
The institutions of Athenian democracy back up Pericles’ claim: ordinary citizens made up almost all the governing bodies of 5th century Athens, including the Ekklesia, the boule, and the prytaneis. The Ekklesia, or Assembly, which passed laws and made policy decisions, met on the Hill of the Pnyx (all citizens were eligible to attend such meetings and speak up). The Boule, or Council of the 500, was charged with administering decisions made by the Ekklesia and met in the Bouleterion in the Agora. The prytaneis, or “Presidential Council,” was a subcommittee of the boule and lived at state expense in the tholos, or “Round Building” in the Agora. By Pericles’ time, the Areopagus (named for the Hill of Ares it sits on) had lost a lot of its power since the previous era, but it was still the court where murder cases were tried.
Pnyx Bouleterion Areopagus Tholos
Go to Pericles and Philadelphia to see some similarities concerning citizens’ rights and responsibilities.
Pericles encourages his audience “to realize the greatness of Athens” and enjoy everything the city has to offer:
“Further, we provide many ways to refresh the mind from the burdens of business. We hold contests and offer sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to drive away sorrow. The magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbor, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.”
stadium theater agora fruits of the harbor more fruits!
Athletic contests would have taken place at the site of this modern marble stadium, built on the foundations of the ancient stadium; theatrical competitions would have been produced in the Theater of Dionysus, on the south slope of the Acropolis (musical and poetic exhibitions, as well as pre-theatrical events, would have been produced in the Odeion built by Pericles – right next to the Theater of Dionysus – but of which no remains really survive); citizens and visitors would have congregated in the Agora to converse with neighbors and visitors, get the daily news, read public announcements, shop, and perform whatever civic responsibilities they had. Socrates did. And the fruits of the world are indeed available at Aegean ports such as Piraeus, Athens’ harbor. All of this contributes to the sense of community Pericles boasts about. The “sacrifices” he mentions off-handedly are almost the only reference in his entire speech to the religious aspect of the Athenians’ lives, which brings us to Pericles’ Building Program on the Acropolis.
What is Pericles’ plan? Although a democratic state, Periclean Athens appears to have a philosophy similar to that of the aristocratically-led Pesistratid Tyranny that preceded it in the sixth century BC: to prove by a glorious show of wealth and power his deep-seated belief that Athens is politically, economically, militarily, culturally and morally superior to her neighbors. Compare the grandeur of these two buildings, the time-ravaged Templeof Olympian Zeus designed – but never built – by the Pesistratids (left), and Parthenon of Pericles (right), who, by the way, was called the “Olympian” by his detractors. This sense of superiority and arrogance (or is it justifiable pride?) comes through loud and clear in Pericles’ speech. Pericles is particularly proud of of Olympian Zeus designed – but never built – by the Pesistratids (left), and Parthenon of Pericles (right), who, by the way, was called the “Olympian” by his detractors. This sense of superiority and arrogance (or is it justifiable pride?) comes through loud and clear in Pericles’ speech. Pericles is particularly proud of “the imperishable monuments”his generation will leave behind, as they stand as incontrovertible proof of Athens’ greatness:
“Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause.”
And Pericles has reason to be proud – without him, neither the Parthenon nor the Propylaia – or perhaps even the later Erechtheum and Temple of Athena Nike – would have been built. For these buildings all belong to Pericles’ Great Building Program.
For a complete rundown on the events that led to Athens’ supremacy in the Aegean in the fifth century, go to Dr. J’s Illustrated Persian Wars and Dr. J’s Illustrated Classical Age pages. But here are the basic important factors:
480: Persians attack Athens and burn the buildings/temples down.
479: Greeks defeat Persia at Plataea and vow not to rebuild anything destroyed by the Persians to keep the memory of their impiety fresh.
477: formation of the Delian League, a protection racket run by Athens to keep Greek colonies/city-states safe from Persia
454: Athens moves the League treasury from Delos to Athens (corrected 10/13/02)
449: Athens comes to terms with Persia
447: Athens begins building the Parthenon (with League funds!)
But Pericles wasn’t without his political enemies, who riled up the Athenian populace against him, accusing him of wasting state funds. Plutarch (an admittedly iffy historical source), provides Pericles’ brilliant retort and the people’s response:
“‘Then be it charged to my account, not yours – only let the new edifices be inscribed with my name, not that of the people of Athens.’ Whether it was that they admired the greatness of his spirit, or were ambitious to share the glory of such magnificent works, they cried out that Pericles might spend as much as he pleased of the public treasure, without sparing it in the least.” (Plutarch’s Life of Pericles; tr: Eduard C. Lindeman)
And so he did.
Another important detail is that in 510 BC, the Oracle of Delphi had proclaimed that only temples and shrines should occupy the Acropolis (up until that time, people actually lived on the rock). So it can be said that Pericles was fulfilling the oracle’s decree – that he built a City of Temples to honor the gods, providing a religious center on the Acropolis just as the Agora was the civic center down below. But there are big holes in this argument.
The jewel in the crown of Pericles’ Building Project is certainly the Parthenon, the most glorious – and enduring – of all Pericles’ imperishable monuments to Athens’ greatness. The Parthenon is dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the Virgin Goddess of war, wisdom and weaving, and patron goddess of the city (the pedimental sculptures tell the stories of her birth and her victorious contest with Poseidon to be patron god of Athens). Inside the temple stood her 40 foot tall gold and ivory (chryselephantine) cult statue made by Pheidias, friend of Pericles.
But there are clues all over the place that this magnificent building was intended to glorify not only the goddess but also the mortal inhabitants of her city. Even the great frieze, traditionally seen as the celebration of the Panathenaic Procession, in which the cult statue of the goddess is honored with a new peplos (garment), suspiciously evokes images of mortal victories: is it a coincidence that there are 192 Athenian soldiers featured on the frieze when that is the exact number of Athenians who fell fighting the Persians at Marathon? And the metopes of the temple do not concern Athena, but present four mythological battles in which the underdog always wins. Again, these conflicts can easily be interpreted as allegories of Athens’ victory over the Persians. And, too, the cult statue clothed at the end of the Panatheniac Procession so proudly carved into the walls of the Parthenon was certainly not the one in the Parthenon. Nor was Pericles shy about putting the building to secular (“non-religious”) uses – its adyton (inner chamber) served as the Athenian treasury, where the Athenians eventually stored the Delian League money after it was moved from Delos in 454.
Go to Dr. J’s Illustrated Parthenon to learn more about the building itself and to Dr. J’s Illustrated Parthenon Marbles to see the magnificent artwork that still awes us today.
The other building commissioned by Pericles, the remains of which may also be found on the Athenian Acropolis today, had absolutely nothing to do with worshipping the gods: the Propylaia is Pericles’ idea of a grand entrance (and he clearly had a knack for this sort of thing!), but it serves a strictly secular function. Unfortunately, the Peloponnesian War halted construction, and then Pericles died in 429, and that was the end of that – the Propylaia was left as it was, never to be finished. See Dr. J’s Illustrated Propylaia for a good look.
Even more telling is that after Pericles died, two more buildings were erected on the Acropolis: the Temple of Athena Nike (below left) and the Erechtheum (below right). Some scholars believe that these were included in Pericles’ original plan, but they certainly do seem to have a different character about them: they are smaller, more delicate, and certainly more concerned with religious ritual and worship. The little temple on the left is dedicated to Athena Nike (“Victory”) which shows gratitude to the patron goddess for victory as opposed to pride in mortal accomplishment…and the other is the Erechtheum, another temple to Athena (in fact, the one which would house the cult statue of Athena Polias, terminus ad quem (goal) of the Panathenaic Procession). This building was carefully planned so as to accommodate all sorts of older cults and shrines, so terribly desecrated by the Persians in the previous generation.
Go to Dr. J’s Illustrated Temple of Athena Nike for a look at one of those 6th century shrines.
Temple of Athena Nike Erechtheum
It certainly appears that Pericles was influenced by Protagoras’ “man is the measure of all things” approach to philosophy. Sophocles, consummate playwright and friend to Pericles (he even acted as Treasurer of the Confederacy of Delos, appointed by Pericles himself) struggled with the apparently irreconcilable claims of tribal affiliation (family) and those of the state, or the clash of the sacred and the secular. In his play Antigone, Sophocles struggles with the issue of the amazing disappearing gods in Periclean Athens. In response to such currents of thought, members of the opposing faction passed a law forbidding atheism, a law which caused Anaxagoras, cosmologist and personal friend of Pericles, to leave the city permanently. (You may recall that in Plato’s Apology, Socrates’ accusers confuse him with this same Anaxagoras). Plutarch even tells us that Pheidias himself dies in jail, sent there on charges that he impiously carved a likeness of himself and one of Pericles into the shield held by his very own statue of Athena. On the right is a photo of a Roman marble copy of this shield. One of the standing figures on the bottom is supposed to have been Pericles, but more on this soon, I hope…
What Pericles talks about in his oration is almost eclipsed in importance by how he delivers the message. It is Pericles’ rhetoric that makes this speech famous and the model for so many others in the course of history (Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address come immediately to mind). Rhetoric can be defined as “the power to persuade.” Throughout his speech, Pericles holds up glory as the richest incentive for men to jump into the fray: Athens is a glorious city because of the sacrifices of previous generations of men, and this generation, too, must shoulder its burden. And while fighting for your country can help bring about a victory, it also has the benefit of bringing you personal glory, something Pericles hawks as a rare and precious commodity and gained in no other way but by dying for your country:
“Realize for yourself the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her day after day, till you become her devoted lover. Then, when all her greatness breaks upon you, reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty and a keen feeling of honor in action that men were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their country of their valor, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution they could offer. By this mutual offering of their lives made by them all, they each of them individually received that renown which never grows old. For a sepulchre they have won not so much that tomb in which their bones are here deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall fall for its commemoration. For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb.”
Pericles’ speech is certainly persuasive – and its emotionality is very much based in reality. It is a powerful thing to see a nation – or a city – mourn its war dead. In the end, do you feel that Pericles’ speech is a masterpiece of rhetoric? And if so, is this a positive or negative?
Yes, these dead Athenians Pericles speaks of have won honor andglory and thus a kind of immortality. And as long as we still speak of them and remember them, they will endure. Curiously, though, in addition to being remembered for his great contributions to culture and history, Pericles has also achieved a kind of popular fame in the Greece of our age (although certainly not the kind of fame he anticipated). Any politician would be honored to have a street named after him (above left), but how about a tourist shop?!